OPINION: Rights outside faith’s domain

ISLAMABAD (Dawn/ANN) - Religion and the contemporary framework of ‘rights’ have a dichotomous anatomy in Pakistan, mainly because the state also distinguishes between the two. 

The state perceives and treats right-based and religious movements in completely different ways; while the former are seen as a threat and looked upon with suspicion, the latter are often overlooked and tolerated. Some recent developments and the state’s response to them further bolster that perception.

The death of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement’s senior member, Prof Arman Loni, in Loralai recently during a police crackdown sparked anger mainly among the youth. The state, however, acted extremely cautiously so as not to give any impression of being ‘concerned’ about the victim.

The PTM is against religiously inspired militants. Logically, it would have been a partner in shaping the anti-militancy narrative and in the rehabilitation process of the erstwhile tribal areas. But it proved otherwise and the state saw it as an enemy, of the ilk of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). That notwithstanding, the state can show tolerance towards religious militants if they agree to quit anti-state violence. 

What is the difference, in the eyes of the state? For one, in any reconciliatory framework, religious militants will usually demand amnesty alone — as happened in the cases of former TTP spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan and the head of the Punjabi Taliban, Asmatullah Muaviya; the PTM will demand transparency and accountability.

The state and religious forces have developed a relationship between ideological and political convenience.

Historically, religious extremist movements have not only created and deepened sectarian and ideological divides in society but have also caused chaos and violence — either directly or by supporting the violent ideologies of local and international terrorist actors. Even then the state has been accommodating religious forces and both have developed a relationship of ideological and political convenience where the ‘anger’ of the latter is considered legitimate and manageable. 

Last month’s visit to North Waziristan by religious scholars, including the heads of some banned militant groups, which was arranged by state forces, is one of the cases in point. The visit left many wondering about how those who nurtured a militant mindset were now being called for help in countering it. The state claims that these banned groups have been taken on board to expand the outreach of the Paigham-i-Pakistan — a state-sponsored religious declaration against violence and hate to disconnect the link between violent militant actors and their support base. But that also reflects on the deep understanding that persists between the religious actors and the state.

The Supreme Court verdict on the 2017 Faizabad sit-in case can also help in understanding the state attitude towards religious actors. The judgement has come at a juncture when state institutions are giving the impression that they have decided to take decisive action against the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan. The TLP-establishment romance proved short-lived. Many Barelvi clerics saw in it an opportunity to draw closer to the powers that be and eventually benefit Barelvi-ism. The TLP took this affinity for granted. Now the Barelvi leadership is in grief, not only for the opportunity they have lost but also for the fact that the power brokers are once again moving to their old, non-Barelvi allies. The apex court judgement is about ensuring the rule of law and does not endorse the impunity and practices of the establishment out of constitutional and legal frameworks. Would the establishment pay attention to this? History proves otherwise. 

The establishment feels comfortable in dealing with religious actors. This is despite the fact that many of these groups have ditched it time and again and kept their sympathies and loyalties with the violent factions of their organisations. However, the religious leaders of the country also want to be close to the power brokers and they know the tricks of manoeuvring. No doubt, the other side also masters the art of manoeuvring, and thus, mutually, they find ways of collaboration. That is why many still doubt that the state institutions have completely abandoned the TLP.

The way the establishment has dealt with the TLP has triggered a debate in some of its quarters about a review and the need to overhaul the state’s approach towards religious groups, and look for and inculcate cultural and civilisational features in the nation-building process. Apparently, this idea has not yet made inroads as the establishment still sees religious actors as potent and trusted allies in its ventures on the political and strategic fronts. The increasing number of madressahs in Balochistan and the growing activities of banned organisations in interior Sindh add credence to that argument. 

It also helps to understand why the ownership of Paigham-i-Pakistan has been given to proscribed organisations. Few elements in the establishment believe that the emergence of the PTM has delayed a possibility of the state’s review of its relationship with religious actors. 

The roots of mistrust in rights movements can be traced back to bitter memories of erstwhile East Pakistan; the ethno-nationalist movements in Sindh and Balochistan were always seen in this context. The state has been dealing with these movements using muscle and is now employing the same treatment to deal with the PTM. The establishment has limited understanding and capacity to address the structural political, economic and sociocultural issues that cause anger, anxiety and dissent amongst marginalised communities. 

Civilian governments remain afraid of taking some initiatives to take these rights movements on board, in particular when the establishment tags them as national security threats. The rights movements have grievances against the establishment and consider civilian governments to be powerless in addressing their grievances. The establishment tries to engage with rights-based movements, but it finds it hard to build confidence with such movements because they operate outside the religious domain.

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